For Wisconsin, WR Jazz Peavy’s senior leadership as important as his production

MADISON, Wis. — Jazz Peavy was supposed to be Wisconsin’s No. 1 wide receiver for a second consecutive season, the go-to playmaker for a team dependent on his ability to stretch the field. Yet in the first month of the regular season, Peavy has become a fourth or even fifth option — through no fault of his own.

Peavy’s production has tapered as younger wide receivers have seen their targets soar. It would be understandable, then, for Peavy to sulk at the prospect of a senior season that so far has not met his standards for individual success.

Instead, Peavy has demonstrated the leadership that has helped to make him such a special player in the receiver group. No. 9 Wisconsin is 4-0 as it enters a crucial Big Ten West game against Nebraska (2-3) for the division lead. And that team success is what matters most to Peavy.

“We’re winning games,” Peavy said after practice Tuesday. “That’s the biggest thing for me. As long as we’re winning games, I’m on a winning team. I’m on a great team, great group of guys and I’m out there having fun. I’m just trying to embrace every moment with my last year and have fun with it.”

In 2016, Peavy put together a breakout season in which he ranked second on the team in receptions (43) and first in receiving yards (635) and touchdown catches (5). The expectation was that he would match, if not surpass, those numbers given the lack of experience behind him at the position.

Through four games, however, sophomore Quintez Cephus has established himself as Wisconsin’s top wide receiver. He has 14 catches for 233 yards with 3 touchdowns. Sophomore A.J. Taylor (7 catches, 105 yards, 1 touchdown) and freshman Danny Davis (6 catches, 152 yards, 1 touchdown) have become much bigger components to the offense.

Meanwhile, tight end Troy Fumagalli has been so good that he has commanded more targets than any other Badgers player. Fumagalli has 15 catches for 236 yards with 3 touchdowns.

And then there is Peavy, who has caught 5 passes for 55 yards without a touchdown. Through four games last season, Peavy had caught 16 passes for 274 yards with 2 touchdowns.

That Peavy’s numbers have decreased is not a surprise — at least according to Peavy. He said he saw the talent in the wide receiver room before the season began and recognized there was an open competition for touches.

“I knew we had a lot of weapons in this offense,” Peavy said. “I knew guys were going to get the ball. So it’s awesome and exciting to see everyone making plays and making touchdowns. Having an offense like this, this is what we’ve been wanting and been asking for and been working for, and we got it. So I wouldn’t say I’m surprised with anything.”

Badgers coach Paul Chryst acknowledged Peavy hadn’t done anything wrong that is limiting his touches. He cited the other receivers and running backs as a reason for fewer opportunities, and he praised Peavy for how he has managed his role. As the weeks progress, the coaching staff will keep finding ways to utilize its best players, which includes Peavy.

“He’s got to be a big part of what we do offensively,” Badgers offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said. “It’s always a big discussion in our room on how to do that. And then you’ve got to play off of what the defense really works hard to take away from you. But Jazz is someone we count on and we’re going to need in a big way. That will continue to be a focus of ours.”

One other facet that could be working against Peavy is the tremendous success he experienced last season. Given that production, he entered this season as a known commodity, so opposing teams have emphasized stopping him more than some of his younger teammates early this season.

“They know who Jazz is and the stuff he can do,” Taylor said. “They know he’s a fast guy. I’ve seen in a couple games where they bracket him and try to make sure they stay on us and flow our way.”

Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown 90 passes this season, and his ability to spread those throws around highlights the offense’s versatility. Fumagalli has been targeted a team-high 23 times despite playing in only 3 games. Cephus has been targeted 18 times, Taylor 10, Davis 9 and Peavy 9. Hornibrook has thrown 4 incompletions directed at Peavy, which includes one drop.

“Jazz is obviously a guy that can still make plays, and he’s going to make a lot of plays for us,” Hornibrook said. “I’m kind of surprised too that probably he isn’t getting the ball as much. Obviously I’m the one doing it, so I shouldn’t be surprised. I think he’s going to make some plays for us and obviously there’s a lot of guys that can make plays, so the ball is going to be spread around a little bit.”

Wisconsin attempted to involve Peavy early during its 33-24 victory against Northwestern on Saturday. He caught a pass on the Badgers’ first play from scrimmage but fumbled the ball away, which led to a Northwestern field goal. Peavy said he wasn’t pressing to make a play and instead cited “bad technique” and hand placement.

Despite his diminished statistics, Peavy has made it a point to show the same level of leadership he did before the season. Taylor said Peavy still offers pointers and congratulates Taylor on his success. And Peavy said he has taken pride in the performance of his teammates.

“Absolutely because I remember very clearly how hard it was to come in as a young guy and be able to get those opportunities or plays or be able to get in the game,” Peavy said. “So to see them grow at the pace they are, we’re all able to lean on each other and the group that we’ve created within our room. I feel like I definitely take pride in it. If there was bad leadership, I feel like it could be different with everyone. Something must be going right, and everyone’s clicking.”

Hornibrook described Peavy as a smart and speedy player who can read coverages and make plays over the top of the defense. And teammates and coaches remain confident that Peavy could produce a breakout game any week.

Peavy will keep working to make that happen but won’t allow thoughts about his production to ruin what could be a special season for the team.

“Whatever my numbers are, it is what it is,” Peavy said. “As long as I’m here on this team and I’m with these guys, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’m going to put my head down, go to work and handle my business the best I can.”

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